Katy Balls

Is the government bluffing on vaccine passports?

Is the government bluffing on vaccine passports?
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Over the past week, the government have been upping the ante when it comes to calls for vaccine passports. Long gone are the days when ministers went out on the airwaves to declare that the UK was not a ‘papers please’ country. Instead, the Prime Minister has already declared that they will be needed to enter nightclubs from September while Dominic Raab this week promised to provide prior warning if – as has been reported – vaccine passports become mandatory for students at university.

However, it’s something else that Raab said in that same interview that has set the cat among the pigeons. The Foreign Secretary also said that vaccine passport messages are a form of ‘coaxing and cajoling’ that can encourage take-up. He pointed to France where Emmanuel Macron’s threat that double-vaccination would be needed to engage in various activities led to a jump in take-up rates. This is the example government aides have also been offering in private when it comes to the rationale behind the latest media blitz.

It’s one of the reasons there is scepticism that we are really heading towards vaccine passports forming a large part of daily life come the autumn. If it is aimed at tempting people to get vaccinated (particularly the young), there’s a hope among several ministers that if enough people take the vaccine they won’t need to go through on their plans after all. That would be desirable politically given that Johnson faces heavy opposition on the issue that extends to members of his government.

Vaccine passports are seen as too big an issue to not debate on the Commons floor if they are brought in. Such a debate would make clear for all to see the scale of the opposition. It’s also not clear yet whether the government would be able to get the measure through in a Commons vote. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has suggested his party opposes vaccine passports for daily use but could support their use for special events so it would depend on the terms of the government’s proposal – which appears to be expanding with each interview.

Given the NHS app has just been updated with a ‘domestic’ section, it seems likely they will exist in some form. However, it could be a lot less widespread than the current government messaging suggests. If the government can achieve its aim of higher vaccination rates before then, ministers will be keen to use that progress to avoid another political row.